International Solidarity in Apartheid South Africa
Keynote Address North American Levinas Society “Solidarity and Community” 29 July 2021
Need I remind anyone again / that armed struggle is an act of love? ~ Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile
In 1987, my husband Rob and I were recruited in Canada to move to Johannesburg to run a safehouse for underground leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle. We did so until 1990, when the operation was discovered by the regime and we fled back to Vancouver.
Those years raised profound and troubling questions for me. However, it was only in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas that I eventually found a way to properly frame and understand my experience of violence and armed resistance, of one’s infinite responsibility before the suffering of others, of solidarity and justice.
I wrote “The Housekeeper’s Tale” for a 2016 conference on the Politics of Armed Struggle in Southern Africa. More literary than scholarly, it sets out several lessons from the School of Underground. What does it mean to go to war? What does it mean to love your enemies? What does violence mean? What peace will come?
The self-confidence of the human being, freedom, has first of all to be aroused again in the hearts of these people. Karl Marx
ABSTRACT: If a time of crisis calls for a new mode of thinking, philosophical practice offers the means to answer that call. Contemporary philosophical practice revitalises the ancient Greek understanding of philosophy as a way of life that cultivates personal transformation and new ways of seeing the world. This article describes the development of the author’s philosophical counselling practice as a practice of emancipation, in concert with the writings of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Rancière. It considers the significance of personal engagement and companionship for the cultivation of practical wisdom, and suggests that the intransigence of our global social and economic crises ultimately indicates an incorrect view of human nature and an ossified or unbalanced relationship between practical and theoretical ways of knowing and wisdom.
Participants in last year’s “Archives of the Non-racial” mobile workshop through South Africa and Swaziland were asked to submit fragments of our notebooks – doodles, notes, reflections, poems, coffee stains. These have been gathered in the JWTC’s online journal, The Salon.
Check out all the loveliness here. This is my bit.
Solidarity and the non-racial (Political struggle 1)
“I’m not going into definitions with academics. Making resolutions and policy is one thing. These things evolve.” Ahmed Kathrada
He made it sound too easy! As if he, Sisulu, Mandela and the others had just sailed into a non-racial ANC. Building on the Congress Movement, it was they who made it such through their lived work. Brought to life with integrity, discipline, trust, humour, love. Practicing (non-racial) freedom, dignity and equality here and now, continually. And of course having a shared radical political project: not non-racialism for its own sake but as a method of struggle for national liberation. These things evolve.
Still thinking about the need for a new mode of thinking… What is the proper relation between philosophy and science now?
Last year, citing Stephen (Philosophy-is-Dead) Hawking and Martin Heidegger, I wrote about “the end of philosophy” in the triumph of science. Given the massive productivity of scientific theory and technology and a world in turmoil, social-order thinking put its faith in scientific standards of evidence, objectivity and rationality. But it’s no good. Science can’t tell us about the meaning of life, precisely because meaning belongs to another order of thought: call it “ethics” or “wisdom”. Pascal knew that the heart has its reasons, but we don’t give the heart much credit. And so it seems that the new task for thinking is to return to the beginnings of philosophy, to inquire into the nature of subjectivity and how to live well with others.
With this division of labour, I effectively left science to its own devices and carried on with my own business. (After all, it is hard to relate to someone who gloats about leaving you in the dust.) Happily, it seems that my judgement was premature. A reconciliation, under new terms, may be on the cards.
One image that can be seen in two distinct ways, but never both at once. Faces or a vase? Duck or rabbit? Crone or maiden? Someone shows you: See, the old woman’s chin is the young woman’s throat! All of a sudden, you do see. You start to switch the two back and forth, grinning like a kid. You can’t believe your eyes!
In times like ours, which call on us to think differently, the skills of vacillation are good to cultivate. Look at it this way. We are all, more or less, caught in the thrall of a particular mode of thinking and its moral order. Call it Western hegemony or what you will, this dominant perspective prizes objectivity, reason and utility, and excels in categorisation, prediction and control. It conceives of humans as self-interested and separate beings that are concerned with their own being, and as winners and losers in competition for scarce resources. It is a view that marginalises and dismisses human tenderness, vulnerability and relatedness. But it knows a duck when it sees one!
A funny thing happened at the Philosophy Café last month. I got lost. We all set sail on a conversation about “sadness”, but I didn’t know what they were talking about. My mind was clear and present. I just couldn’t relate, couldn’t get a grip, couldn’t participate. And the good ship “we” sailed on without me. Huh.
It’s been a chance to rediscover that – so long as you’re not in real danger, so long as you don’t panic – being all at sea is philosophy’s home ground. Not knowing what’s happening is a condition of wonder, in every sense of the word. It’s also kind of sad.
This paper has just been published in Philosophical Practice, the journal of the American Philosophical Practice Association. You can find it here and there …
PHILOSOPHICAL COUNSELLING AS A PRACTICE OF EMANCIPATION
Helen Douglas, Philosophy in Practice, Cape Town
Abstract: This is a second ‘field report’ of a Levinassian philosophical counseling practice. The first part elaborates the practice by means of a ‘threefold logic’ of ground, path and fruition. While the ground and path remain a Levinasian ‘good practice’ of relationship and dialogue, the fruition of the work is now seen as ‘emancipation’, understood broadly as ‘the fact or process of being set free from restrictions’, rather than ‘therapy’, understood narrowly as ‘treatment to relieve a disorder’ (Oxford Dictionary). The turn to emancipation is explored by way of Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Philosophy as a practice of emancipation is the work of equals.
For months I’ve been like a hound dog barking at a rabbit hole. Then I think I fell in because things got kind of strange. Here’s how it went…
Step 1 (QA 44). The development of philosophical practice as ethical and emancipatory leads me to think about human dignity as integral, inherent and immeasurable. And a source of great confusion. What is that about?
Last week I attended “Phenomenology and Its Futures”, the inaugural conference of the South African Centre for Phenomenology – and a splendid conference it was! I spoke on “Philosophy as a practice of emancipation”. Followers of this blog will know I’ve been beavering away at this for a while. The paper described my philosophical counselling practice as grounded in the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (in a nutshell: “We are all responsible for everyone else – but I more than the others.”) and directed towards emancipation (as in Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation). This was my conclusion…
I have found it increasingly useful and reliable to work from an expanded premise of equality, to suppose that we all come equipped with the same capacity for intelligence, sanity and goodness. This is not faith, idealism or ideology. It is a hypothesis, an opinion that can’t finally be proved either way. But, like Rancière, we can pay attention what happens when we start looking for the evidence to verify it.